SA calls for Mubarak to step down

South Africa has joined the international chorus calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of mass street demonstrations in Cairo and other cities.

Ayanda Ntsaluba, the director general of international relations and cooperation, said in an interview it was clear that the status quo in Egypt could not remain and that dialogue was needed to “usher in a new era premised on democratic principles”. “There is no point for Egypt even pretending that the status quo can remain.”

He said the extent of the uprisings highlighted the fact that there were problems with last year’s elections in the North African country. “It’s unusual to have such outpourings shortly after the elections—it’s clear that something fishy happened.
If it [the government] is as popular as the results would have you believe, why this outpouring?”

He said reports from South African diplomats included information about “the growing unpopularity of the president” and that the unrest came as no surprise. Ntsaluba implied that Egypt was jealous of the diplomatic achievements and influence of South Africa, which had a smaller economy but was seen as having greater diplomatic stature.

“There was always a sense of competition. Egypt lost the bid to host the Pan-African Parliament and the 2010 Fifa World Cup—so at some point things were a bit uneasy.

“Egypt also wants to join Bric [the Brazil, India, China grouping] and the G20 and this created a competitive edge.” Ntsaluba urged the Egyptians “not to pull back”, saying that they should not be afraid to make hard decisions.

He outlined the dilemma facing the United States and other Western countries over Egypt. “Western countries are in a dilemma because they propped up these regimes that they know are undemocratic. On the one hand these regimes were a source of stability to the region. But now that the US has stated that Mubarak must go, there’s anxiety that it must not leave space for the rise of the Islamic movement.

“The dilemma countries like the US face is that they may find themselves on the wrong side of history.” Ntsaluba ascribed the uprisings to a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East, which could strengthen Islamist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But this was not an issue for Pretoria.

“We don’t think that Islamic governments are inherently bad. Also, the situation does not have direct relevance for us, because we are far away and not as involved in the ­politics of the region.”

One unintended effect of the unrest could be the further strengthening of Iran in the Middle East, he said. “If Egypt buckles, there is no doubt it will act as an inspiration to most countries in the Middle East. It may even, in a strange way, be similar to when the collapse of Iraq favoured Iran.”

It would strengthen relations between the Muslim Brotherhood, which many see as poised to seize power in Egypt, and Iran’s Shia rulers, leading to a rejection of the ­secular state that the US has tried to promote.

Ntsaluba said the unrest in Egypt was not formally discussed at the recent African Union summit, because no one was available to brief the gathering formally. “The foreign minister was there but no one was sure of his status because the Cabinet had just been disbanded,” he said.

South Africa’s exports to Egypt in 2009 totalled R1,2-billion, but imports were a modest R231,3-million.

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